'Lazy,' 'Money-Oriented,' 'Single Mother': How Union-Busting Firms Compile Dossiers on Employees
A leaked internal "polling" spreadsheet from one of the country's top union avoidance firms offers an inside look into a highly secretive industry that specializes in helping employers derail union drives using sophisticated, tested, and, at times, legally questionable methods.
The spreadsheet was used by union avoidance firms that tried to thwart a union drive at two Seattle hospitals owned by Conifer Health Solutions in 2019. One of the union avoidance firms involved in that campaign was IRI Consultants, which was retained by Google in 2019 amid a wave of unprecedented worker organizing at the company. On Monday, hundreds of Google workers revealed they formed a union with the Communications Workers of America.
According to documents obtained by Motherboard, IRI union avoidance consultants regularly gathered information about 83 rank-and-file hospital employees' personality, temperament, motivations, ethnicity, family background, spouses' employment, finances, health issues, work ethic, job performance, disciplinary history, and involvement in union activity in the lead-up to a union election. Each employee was then given a rating for how likely the company believed they were to vote for the union.
In the notes for one employee, IRI consultants wrote that they were "lazy," "money oriented," "aloof," "from Samoa," "tired of people on team and doesn't want to assist them," and told managers that "'the union is full of crap.'"
Notes described another employee as a "follower," "impressionable," "a single mother," adding that their "rent [had] increased" and they couldn't "afford [union] dues" and "will do whatever friends do."
A source familiar with IRI's practices told Motherboard that collecting detailed personal information on each rank-and-file employee in order to assess their union sympathies is standard practice for how IRI Consultants and other union avoidance firms conduct work for all of their clients.
IRI Consultants did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. Consultants from at least one other union avoidance firm worked on the union drive.
The new labor union at Google raises IRI's profile in what is expected to become a full-blown drive to organize and welcome its parent company Alphabet’s tens of thousands of workers into a union. Although IRI is highly secretive about its methods and clients, it also appears to work with major hospitals and healthcare companies, auto manufacturers, universities, charter schools, tribal associations, food manufacturers, and retailers in 49 states and boasts online that it has successfully convinced workers at a national healthcare company with 50,000 employees to avoid a union drive despite unions "devoting millions of dollars" to the campaign.
The documents obtained by Motherboard offer a rare look into the strategies used by IRI and the union avoidance industry as a whole to defeat workers' efforts to organize for higher wages, benefits, and their improved safety and well-being at work. According to a 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute, employers in the United States spend roughly $340 million on union avoidance consultants each year, who often report being paid in the neighborhood of $350 hourly rates or $2,500 a day for their work fending off unions.
"As a consultant, you're trying to figure how many kids a worker has, if they have a boyfriend, girlfriend or both, if they're married, or have relatives in management at the company. You try to figure out things that will make them motivated to [vote no].”
A spokesperson for Google said that neither Google nor any consulting firms had ever collected personal data on its workforce, or ranked workers based on their likelihood to join unions. "We've engaged dozens of outside law and consulting firms to provide us with their advice on a wide range of topics,” a Google spokesperson said. “No-one at Google, nor any consultant or firm who we've ever engaged or worked with, has done what you've described."
In response, the Alphabet Workers Union, the new union representing Google workers told Motherboard, "Google claims to value privacy, then expends resources on consultants like IRI who are intent on collecting worker data in order to manipulate employees to work against their best interests. Instead of pouring resources into the very workers that drive the company, particularly those exploited by Alphabet’s two tiered employment system, Google is engaging with a company that violates the privacy of workers while pretending to welcome open discourse."
Union avoidance consultants, often hired as independent contractors which allows firms to circumvent federal reporting requirements, often work with multiple clients at once, sometimes parachuting into a worksite for just a few weeks or days to train managers and hold "educational" meetings with workers.
Tracking the union avoidance firms behind anti-union campaigns is intentionally made difficult by firms that subcontract out work to other firms that hire independent contractors to avoid federal reporting requirements laid out by the Department of Labor and shield themselves from public scrutiny. For example, evidence reviewed by Motherboard reveals that IRI Consultants worked with an independent contractor working for a firm in Colleyville, Texas called Employer Labor Solutions on the Conifer Health Solutions union drive in 2019. Emails obtained by Motherboard confirm that consultants using IRI email addresses created anti-union materials and handouts for the same Conifer union drive.
UFCW Local 21, the union representing healthcare workers, told Motherboard that they were aware that Conifer had hired Employer Labor Solutions to fight the union drive, thanks for federal reports to the Department of Labor, but the union had not known of IRI’s involvement in the anti-union campaign.
According to the anti-union spreadsheet, detailed personal information collected on employees is used by consultants to periodically rate workers on a one-to-five scale based on their likelihood of voting "yes" in a union drive. The data is then compiled into charts and graphs that help companies assess the likelihood of workers voting to unionize and developing strategies for persuading employees who remain on the fence to vote "no."
In the documents, union avoidance consultants—known as "educators" and "persuaders" in the industry—also offered up suggestions for appealing to workers' motivations to flip those on the fence to "no" votes. For example, consultants suggested "educating" certain workers about "union dues" and others about "seniority."
"Collecting this data is absolutely standard anti-union consultant playbook," said Celine McNicholas, labor legal counsel at the Economic Policy Institute. "There's an incredible amount of coercion to frustrate workers."
"As a consultant, you're trying to figure how many kids a worker has, if they have a boyfriend, girlfriend or both, if they're married, or have relatives in management at the company," a union avoidance consultant who did work for IRI Consultants and wished to remain anonymous because they feared negative repercussions in the industry, told Motherboard. "You try to figure out things that will make them motivated to [vote no]. Are they motivated by economics? Do they like their supervisor or do they hate their supervisor?"
While it is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 for companies and managers to spy on workers' labor organizing activity, create the impression of surveillance, or even ask employees about whether they support a union drive, union avoidance companies have developed methods and conversational tactics for gathering data and persuading workers to vote "no" that do not break labor laws. Often managers themselves who have direct access to and more leverage over their subordinates are trained by union avoidance firms to deploy these tactics.
“You can judge who supports the union and who has been to a union meeting by reading people’s responses, body language, looking at who's nodding along. I can tell you who attended a union meeting based on the questions they ask, the verbiage they use."
"Consultants specialize in operating in the grey areas of the law," said John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University who researches the union avoidance industry.
"They’re not quite illegal but they’re sort of bending the law if they’re not breaking it," he continued. "You cannot interrogate people about their union sympathies. You can’t spy to figure out workers’ possible sympathies, you can’t threaten them. You can’t make promises."
"Managers are often deployed as part of a coordinated campaign effort across a workplace," McNicholas, the union avoidance expert at the Economic Policy Institute told Motherboard.
In the spreadsheet, IRI Consultants recorded their own observations as well those of managers about whether employees were respected by their coworkers, and tracked their comments, composure, and participation during so-called captive audience meetings—mandatory meetings held on-the-clock by management to persuade workers not to vote "yes" in a union drive, as well as one-on-one meetings with managers.
"When union avoidance consultants hold meetings with workers, you're not holding a meeting but you're trying to do an assessment. You can judge who supports the union and who has been to a union meeting by reading people’s responses, body language, looking at who's nodding along. I can tell you who attended a union meeting based on the questions they ask, the verbiage they use," the union avoidance consultant who did work for IRI Consultants said. "Then you go and note that information in their file."
Other characteristics consultants used to describe Conifer employees were "stone-faced," "angry about everything," "dingy but good at her job," "very full of herself," "strong personality so most people stay away from her," and "fabulous."
"Should have been fired but saved him," the comments on another worker read. "Good worker but he thinks he is better than he is."
According to the spreadsheet, the rating system used by consultants is used to predict the outcome of union elections. A worker who received a "one" rating has been identified by consultants as the most "pro-union." This type of worker is defined as an "internal organizer actively recruiting union supporters, signed petition, pictured in flyer, participated in picketing or other union actions, hosting meetings." Meanwhile, a worker who receives a five rating has been identified as the most "pro-company." IRI defines this type of worker as "actively working against the union, vocal in public about not supporting the union and has a reason for why, validated by another source."
Based on the rating system, IRI's internal polling predicted that 58 percent of the Conifer hospital employees eligible to vote in the 2019 union election were "pro-union," 42 percent were "pro-hospital," and no workers remained unassessed by the consultants.
On July 29, 2019, IRI's assessment proved correct. The workers overwhelmingly voted to join UFCW Local 21. As UFCW Local 21 notes on Facebook, the employer, Conifer Health Solutions "threw everything they had at this group of 80 workers, flying in top union busters from Los Angeles and New York."
"It’s horrifying that Conifer has engaged in these creepy practices," said Matt Loveday, campaign director at UFCW Local 21. "This is the employment future we’re headed toward: your whole life is just data for your employer to mine and exploit.”
Although the documents obtained by Motherboard were used to assess a joint union drive at two hospitals in the Seattle suburbs, St. Joseph Medical Center and St. Elizabeth Hospital, both owned by Conifer Health Solutions, in 2019, the union avoidance consultant familiar with IRI Consultants' work told Motherboard that conducting internal "polling" of a workplace and collecting information on employees is a standard practice for IRI Consultants and other union avoidance firms in the industry.
"Most union avoidance firms use their access to employees to create an internal poll," the union avoidance consultant who worked for IRI said. "IRI is very good at charting, looking for clusters of employees, for example, they'll note that a small group of Haitians are pro-company, while the Cubans are pro-union. You definitely utilize big data because it helps make decisions."
Collecting data on workers, their shifts, and union sympathies, identifying leaders, and mapping out workplace relationships at a given worksite is also a common tactic of union organizers trying to win union campaigns.
"There's all sorts of ways of collecting data on your workforce," said Logan, the union avoidance expert at San Francisco State University. "Beginning in the 1970s, we started to see fly-by-night union avoidance consultants using behavior techniques crafted by industrial psychologists to persuade workers not to support a union. Since then, they've become much more sophisticated in terms of data analytics and the way they convey the anti union message."
Collecting data on workers, their shifts, and union sympathies, identifying leaders, and mapping out workplace relationships at a given worksite is also a common tactic of union organizers trying to win union campaigns. But employers have the advantage of having direct access to employees and information about their workforce, particularly the size and layout of their workforce. Union organizers, though, say that while companies often engage in invasive or illegal activities to access information about employees and their sentiments toward unions, workers collaborate to gather this information to win union elections.
"We should draw a really clear line between how union busters surveil workers, versus how workers offer up their own connections via wall place charting [an exercise unions use to identify social and communication networks within a workplace and track progress toward winning a union drive] in an effort to win [union elections]," Jane McAlevey, a union organizer and the author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, told Motherboard. In 2016, when Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia spent millions of dollars on IRI Consultants to fight a union drive, McAlevey helped organize workers to successfully win their union election and bargain a contract.
The website for IRI Consultants offers little information about IRI's high profile clients, beyond saying the firm has been hired by universities, renewable energy companies, auto-makers,"the nation's largest food manufacturers," and "several top ten worldwide retailers." It has been reported, though, that IRI Consultants has been brought in to fight off union drives at Sanford University's ValleyCare Hospital, Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California, Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles Film School.
Notably, in 2019, the New York Times reported that Google retained IRI Consultants to advise management on how to handle a wave of internal worker dissent. At the time, workers had discovered internal company calendars showing meetings between IRI and Google. In December, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charged Google with illegally firing, spying on, interrogating employees active in labor organizing in the company in 2019.
While Motherboard has not obtained evidence that IRI collected detailed data and information about Google employees that violated federal labor law, and Google has denied collecting this information—experts say union avoidance consultants are often hired to simply stamp out any sort of collective action led by workers, even if there isn't an active union drive.
"It looks like IRI had previously taken a hands off approach at Google, mostly helping craft policy changes,” said Laurence Berland, one of the fired Google engineer activists that the NLRB charged Google with wrongfully terminating. “Now that [their union] is public, I expect IRI will be more active."
Do you have a tip to share with us about the union avoidance industry? We’d love to hear from you. You can reach out to the reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley on Signal at 201-897-2109 or via email Lauren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Union avoidance firms like IRI are useful in identifying supporters and opponents of any sort of a collective action by employees such as what's happening at Google," said Gordon Lafer, an expert on the union avoidance industry at the University of Oregon.
"They advise employers on splitting up core groups of people physically or by assignment, firing people, having managers intimidate workers," he continued. "In the case of Google, it'd make sense they'd use a firm like this to stop employee organizing."